Order, Chaos, and the Search for Meaning in Abra

My experience with Abra: A Living Text has been a mixed one. On the one hand, I found its premise wildly imaginative – the ephemeral, fleeting quality of each poem creates a certain kind of beauty. Conversely, at least in my experience, it also produced a sense of anxiety and frustration. When I first opened the app, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. Presented with the “mutate”, “graft”, “prune”, “erase” and “Kadabra” tools, I expected to command a greater sense of control over the art I created. In an attempt to play with the evocative nature of sounds from different languages, I grafted in some of my favorite French words. Here’s an example of what the app created:

A bilingual poem

This picture is quite small, so I’ll write out the poem:


pomme trellis

up the pleuvoir



tide-powder bristle

brûme necklace

As you can see in the image, the first word of the poem is being distorted as the app changes it. This random addition, deletion, and rearranging of words is probably my least favorite aspect of the app. Afforded these aforementioned quasi-forms of control, I tried to create a piece I liked, one that was aesthetically pleasing or even meaningful in some way. However, the magical and chaotic forces of the app seemed bent on changing my piece as soon I as I crafted it to my liking.

Strangely, I didn’t feel this frustration to maintain order or compulsion to extract meaning when working with Tracery. Perhaps that’s because I actually created the structure and phrases for which the program could randomly generate from. With Abra though, I had no clue what the app’s lexicon is and didn’t quite grasp the actual rule-based system.

I’d like to bounce off of one of the previous blog posts “A Backwards Poet Writes ‘Inverse'”  and their discussion of inspiration. While I don’t agree with their view of Abra as simply a game and not an “inspirational tool” (I see it as a vehicle for inspiration much like the Dada movement and the cut-up method), I  agree the app is lacking. It gives the user a taste of control but then plunges them into chaos.

On a slightly different note, while feeling frustrated about the app I remembered the famous “face” found on Mars, and the subsequent popular fascination surrounding it. People are so quick to look for meaning and familiarity in everything – it’s a type of survival method, I think. But then, when we’re confronted with things like Abra, digital pieces of literature that have no meaning, what are we to do?

The infamous ‘human face‘ found on Mars that started quite a debate

Leave a Reply